Am I doing Tai Chi?

NOTE: This article will be consolidated with Essendon Park Lesson and will be removed by 13 August 2022.

Reflections on the Essendon Park Lesson 25th June 2022.

At the beginning of the lesson, Master Chin Min spoke about how “tai chi is not tai chi” without yin and yang. We practised this in relation to specific movements (eg Waving Hands through Clouds) focusing on strengthening and relaxing the palms and fingers, feeling the yin and the yang.

This made me think about how we begin to experience yin and yang in our tai chi form. We focus on the polarity of strength and softness along with slow deep breathing in our qi gong practice, but how do we carry this into a long form where we don’t stand in one spot? There’s so much else to think about when we start Level 1.

From my own observation, most of us are generally lacking ‘yin’ when we start. We are concentrating on the technical aspects of getting our feet and hands in the right place and trying to remember what comes next - and the effort of this mental focus may cause shoulders to rise and elbows to be stiff instead of rounded. We are not soft. Our breathing generally isn’t slow and deep.

I think we all start off being rather ‘yang’. I know I did. When encouraged to be more relaxed and rounded, we feel we should somehow go all floppy. Yet even softer movements involve physical effort, so floppy doesn’t work.

While learning our form, we try to be aware of yin and yang in our physical movements, being mindful of the substantial and the insubstantial in palms/fingers or in the weight transfer from one leg to the other, or in having a soft rounded arm with strength in the palm. But it’s a lot to absorb at the beginning.

And yin and yang are more than just direct opposites. They are constantly changing relative to each other. As we can see from the yin yang symbol, there is a little bit of yin within yang, and a little bit of yang within yin. They never separate. It is said that when yang reaches its maximum, yin takes over – and vice versa.

We know that tai chi translates into English as something like the Universe or the Ultimate. Philosophically, it is a very profound concept – a template of the universe arising from observation of nature. How do we understand a model for the universe within our own bodies and physical movements in tai chi form? How to feel and express the yin and the yang?

I think, as beginners, we simply start with a mental awareness and visualisation of the polarity of softness and strength, and this means, strangely, we must work quite hard to relax. The Chinese concept of song/soong (as written in English) is generally translated as ‘relax’. I recently read another translation of that term as ‘unbound’, which I find useful because of its connotations of ‘release’.

As we go on learning, we also need to develop the understanding that our soft movements require strength, and our stronger movements should also have softness, and we should become aware of the interaction of the yin and the yang as something constantly ebbing and flowing, as in nature. And of course, we must be soft overall so that the chi can flow and be directed where we want it. Tension will restrict the flow of chi, but strength in softness won’t.

Somehow over time, with increasing familiarity with the form and lots of practise, we may learn to let go where appropriate, and to strengthen where appropriate. This is largely underpinned by the martial arts applications of the various movements, so we need to be aware of both the applications and the qi gong aspects of tai chi form.

Eventually we become aware of the end of one movement and the beginning of the next, but without any ending or beginning. Our breathing slows and deepens in harmony with our movements, and our tai chi form flows like nature into the dynamic interchange and balance of yin and yang.
I think that’s when we are “doing tai chi”.

I believe the estimated time to achieve this is about six lifetimes!

Joy Muir, Instructor
Moonee Ponds Centre

Updated: 7 August 2022